My daughter sits down to dinner, looks at the food on the table, and says, I’m not hungry.
That’s rude, her sister tells her.
I don’t care what you think.
That’s rude as well, I say. You should apologize.
She looks directly into my eyes and blurts, I’m sorry for you. The moment the slip registers, her lips bunch quickly inward as though someone had tugged a drawstring. She successfully suppresses a laugh until her sister lets out a muffled snicker and they both break into a fit of hysterical laughter.
“A thing is funny,” writer George Orwell explains, “when—in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening—it upsets the established order. Every joke is a tiny revolution.”
After my first day of clown school, I tried to drop out. The instructor was provoking us in a way that made me uncomfortable: to the nervous, smiley woman, “Don’t lead with your teeth”; to the young hipster, “Go back to the meth clinic”; and to me, “I don’t want to hear your witty repartee about Oscar Wilde.When we are struck, there’s a brief pause during which the internal dust is kicked up—we lose our habitual bearings and an opening is created for something unexpected to slip in.
I was the only nonactor in the program and had made the mistake, as we went around the circle on the first day, of telling everyone I was a psychoanalyst writing a book about laughter. As part of my research, I explained, I had frequented comedy clubs and noticed how each performance, had it been delivered in a different tone of voice and context, could have been the text of a therapy session.
Audience members, I told them, laughed less because a performer was funny than because they were honest. Of course that’s not how all laughter operates, but the kind of laughter I’m interested in—spontaneous outbursts—seems to function that way, and clown performances push that dynamic to its extreme, which is why I decided to enroll in clown school, and how I earned the grating nickname “smarty-pants.”
But if I dropped out, I would lose my tuition money. So I decided to stay and, by staying, was provoked, unsettled, changed.
There’s a knee-jerk tendency to perceive provocation as negative—like how in writing workshops participants often call for the most striking part of a work to be cut. When we are struck, there’s a brief pause during which the internal dust is kicked up—we lose our habitual bearings and an opening is created for something unexpected to slip in. Habit protects us from anything we don’t have a set way of handling. Because we are least automatous when caught off guard, it’s in those moments that we are most likely to come up with spontaneous responses.
It turned out that the perpetually smiling woman was sad, the hipster (who didn’t even do drugs) acted high as a way of muting the parts of his personality he was afraid we would judge, and I found it easier to hide behind my intellect than to expose myself as a flawed and flailing human being. Each role, in other words, offered a form of protection: by giving off recognizable signals to indicate a character type, we accessed a kind of invisibility.
We cued people to look through us to the prototypes we were referencing. When the instructor satirized those roles, he defamiliarized them so the habitual suddenly became visible. His provocations knocked the lids off the prototypes we were hiding inside of, in a similar way to how many psychoanalysts, in the attempt to understand a person’s conflicts, begin by analyzing their defenses—what is being used as a cover—before moving on to what is being covered up and why.
Both psychoanalysis and the art of clowning—though in radically different ways—create a path toward the unconscious, making it easier to access the unsocialized self, or, in philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s terms, to “become the one you are.” Psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott considers play to be “the gateway to the unconscious,” which he divides into two parts: the repressed unconscious, which is to remain hidden, and the rest of the unconscious, which “each individual wants to get to know” by way of “play,” which, “like dreams, serves the function of self-revelation.” In clown school, the part of the mind that psychoanalysis tries to reveal—by analyzing material brought into a session, including dreams and play—is referred to as a person’s “clown.”Both psychoanalysis and the art of clowning—though in radically different ways—create a path toward the unconscious, making it easier to access the unsocialized self.
Each of us has a clown inside us, according to Christopher Bayes, head of physical acting at the Yale School of Drama and founder of the Funny School of Good Acting, where I was taking my two- week, six-hours-per-day workshop. The theatrical art of clowning—commonly referred to as “clown”—is radically different from the familiar images associated with birthday parties, circuses, and horror stories. Bayes’s program helps actors find their inner clown. The self-revelation that results provides access to a wellspring of playful impulses that they can then tap into during creative processes. His method stems from the French tradition developed by his former teachers Jacques Lecoq and Philippe Gaulier—the kind of training the fictional main character of actors Louis C.K. and Zach Galifianakis’s TV series Baskets seeks, and that Sacha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson, and Roberto Benigni underwent early in their careers.
Lecoq, who began his career as a physiotherapist, believes that “the body knows things about which the mind is ignorant”—a phrase that can be applied to the unconscious. The process of trying to find your clown involves going through a series of exercises that strip away layers of socialization to reveal the clown that has been there all along—or, in Winnicott’s terms, your “True Self.”
Various experiences affect our ability to make contact with our true self. Winnicott sees the first signs of the True Self in the spontaneous gestures of an infant, which would develop if a “good enough mother” was able to affirm and accept them, or be hidden if she disapproved of or corrected them (“It’s not mooooah, it’s Mama!”). When an infant modifies its behavior to please—a survival mechanism at base, given the infant’s dependency on the mother for its basic needs— the socialized self begins to develop.
The more our concerns surround survival, in fact, the more we suppress our primal instincts and try to blend in—or, in the extreme, play dead (like hiding among a pile of bodies during a mass shooting). The social equivalent of playing dead is to put forward a facade—what Winnicott terms the “False Self,” built around manners and protocols as opposed to spontaneous expression—that flies under the radar in order to ensure the survival of the True Self. It’s a kind of psychological slouching based on the belief that whatever stands out is dangerous: the tallest sunflower gets snipped.
The clown is different. The clown gets up before an audience and risks letting whatever is inside them seep out, just as analysands in psychoanalysis free-associate, let their thoughts go wherever the mind takes them. While the analyst searches for the analysand’s True Self by way of material that reveals the unconscious, the actor in clown school seeks to discover it by way of their spontaneous expressions. These processes are similar to what philosopher Martin Heidegger terms aletheia, or truth as unconcealment. The clearest expression I’ve heard of aletheia came years ago, when I overheard my then three-year-old daughter call someone beautiful. I asked, What does beautiful mean? Still close to her clown, she replied, Beautiful means most self.
Like a clown’s red nose, beauty reveals: “You know the clown is present,” according to Bayes, “when you no longer see the nose.” Gaulier runs a clown school in Paris that actors flock to from around the globe for its famous yearlong training program. His purported definition of beauty as “anyone in the grip of freedom or spontaneity” functions as a guiding principle in the clown community. The clown is the embodiment of this beauty in the unmediated expression of raw emotion—the mask, according to Lecoq, “draw[s] something from [the actor], divesting him of artifice.” The mask, in other words, unmasks.
Ten years later I asked my daughter, Is it better to be beautiful or photogenic? She paused for a while, thought about it, then said, I’d rather be beautiful, but I think you get more out of being photogenic.Clown, like analysis, raises our awareness of our impulses to accommodate others in the pursuit of affirmation.
Our preoccupation with perfecting our exteriors, our profiles—which often determine what we have access to in the social world—has caused us to lose touch with our interiors. The dominant issue bringing people into my office for psychoanalysis is the sense that, after sacrificing so much to achieve the lives they had dreamed of, they’re unable to experience the pleasure they had expected to accompany those ideal lives they labored to construct.
The False Self may be attractive to onlookers, but it is not connected to the emotional panelboard, into which the clown sticks every finger without fear of getting shocked. Whereas most people are encouraged to work to line up their external chips and let the internal chips fall where they may, the clown does the inverse: lines up the internal chips and lets the external chips fall where they may. The beautiful mess that results reveals the clown’s interior and the interior of the audience members, who recognize themselves in what the clown is expressing. They mark that recognition with laughter, sometimes the only socially acceptable form of catharsis, as philosopher René Girard puts it.
The desire for acceptance prompts people to hide whatever they imagine may be judged, their True Selves and their clowns, the motley colors within. “It’s easier for other people,” Bayes told us repeatedly, “if you’re less”:
That’s why we have the social contract on the subway: no eye contact, don’t take up space. I want you to be more. You can be less if you’re going to sell real estate, but not if you’re going to be an artist. It demands that you live hotter. I’m trying to undo socialization: stop wiggling, sit still, please behave. When someone says please behave, it means please behave less.
Behaving less supports the status quo and increases your chances of having access to the benefits that accompany belonging, which is often achieved by putting others first. Giving the mother what we know she will affirm trains us to develop a radar for what is wanted by other people, as opposed to tuning in to what is inside us. The result is a sense of alienation from ourselves that gets transmitted to others and is often rewarded, as it keeps the wheels turning without catches or snags.
Yet things are different in the consulting room and the theater for the person trying to access the deepest recesses of the self within a framed environment. Psychoanalysis tries to understand the forces that bend our psychic development and to understand how those forces shape us and the choices we make. Clown, like analysis, raises our awareness of our impulses to accommodate others in the pursuit of affirmation, and, by removing the social filter, pushes us to explore what might have been possible had we continued to believe that what is most beautiful is the moment when we are most ourselves, even if that means being messy, vulnerable, or despairing. “Imagine what you would be like,” prompted Bayes, “if you’d never been told no.” If we resist aligning our interiors with the social order, we create openings into which we can spontaneously grow.
Excerpted from Animal Joy: A Book of Laughter and Resuscitation by Nuar Alsadir. Copyright © 2022. Available from Graywolf Press.